Two years ago, a thorough, bipartisan Senate report concluded that the federally subsidized information-sharing hubs known as “fusion centers,” long billed as a “centerpiece of our counterterrorism strategy,” were in fact an expensive boondoggle. Despite being funded by the Department of Homeland Security to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade, the centers produced no useful counterterror intelligence and often focused instead on local law enforcement matters unrelated to any legitimate national security purpose.
Confirming that judgment, the New York Times has obtained documents showing how numerous regional fusion centers circulated “threat analysis” reports related to the Occupy Wall Street movement. As the Times reports, many centers circulated memoranda “sometimes describing arrests or disruptive tactics, but often listing apparently lawful, even routine activities” including campus lectures on grassroots organizing and classes on “yoga, faith & spirituality.” One example of intelligence sharing: Officials in Boston apprised the Washington, D.C. fusion center that 15 protesters were headed for the nation’s capital via bus, though reassured them that none of the activists were “known to be troublemakers.” Other reports consisted of little more than searches for “Occupy” copied and pasted from Twitter.
To be clear: There’s nothing inherently illegitimate about a local police department keeping tabs on large upcoming public gatherings–including protests–for prosaic reasons of public safety and traffic management (though it is hard to think of a legitimate reason for them to take official notice of specific individuals speaking on political topics). What’s absurd is that the federal government is throwing “homeland security” funds at institutions that, having proven hilariously incapable of making any contribution to counterterror efforts, instead busy themselves trawling Google for information about political rallies.
Setting up local law enforecement officials to play “intelligence analyst” in a toy spy agency is, as these documents show, a recipe for the very creepiest sort of mission creep—with databases of peaceful political activities classed as “potential threats.” But even leaving aside any concerns about First Amendment–chilling effects, there’s simply no reason for the federal government to be footing any of the bill for local police functions. If, as it seems, fusion centers serve no real homeland security purpose, let’s shut them down and assume municipal cops are perfectly capable of carrying out traditional crowd control functions without help from Washington.